Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The rambling advice of a former A-Level student

What follows is a rambling list of suggestions from me as a former A-Level student on how you can best succeed. By no means do I view myself as an expert, but as an average student who's gone through the process, what I learned the hard way may be useful to at least a few others.

1. Ignore your targets
Schools like to set targets for your exam results. Teachers won't like this advice, but for the most part: ignore your targets. Unless you agree with them exactly, set them aside and set your own targets. Teacher-set targets are usually accurate and reflect your own performance, but those which are set through strange mathematical algorithms and based upon things like past results are not necessarily right for you. I've had my share of off-target targets in my time. At GCSE my target for French was A. I don't know how this was possible, because I was taking Foundation and so the best I could get was a C. When starting AS-Level I was disheartened to see that my targets were below what I wanted to aim for; it felt like I was being doubted before I'd even begun. If your targets feel too low or too high; ignore them. You know what you're capable of and what you want to work towards. If you're doing your very best but not hitting your official target, don't feel bad - chances are that your target was set in some obscure way and isn't sensible.

2. Past performance is not necessarily an indication of success
This one swings both ways: if you've done well in the past, you will not necessarily continue to do well if you rest on your laurels; and if you've performed below what you're aiming for, you can still improve. If you do well, the worst thing you can do is become complacent and presume that you'll continue to do well without putting in effort. Unless you're one of the minority of hyper-intelligent bastards who sail through everything, you need to keep working. Similarly, remember that you always improve on your past results. At AS I got 2 As and 2 Bs. In my overall A-Levels, I was shocked to get 3 A*s. If you work hard enough and genuinely put in effort, you can achieve better than what you're aiming for.

3. You don't have to be naturally intelligent to succeed
I don't consider myself to be naturally highly intelligent. I know some people who can do practically no work and no revision and still get amazing grades. I am not one of those people. If I didn't have the drive and dedication to work, then I would not have done nearly as well as I had. Don't get irritated when others appear to put in little effort but do better than you; keep working, keep trying, keep improving. Chances are, you'll get to where you want to be, even if it takes you longer than others. You can be a good and successful student without being blessed with natural intelligence. If you're struggling, seek help from teachers, parents, anyone who can assist you. It's well worth investing in a private tutor if you're really struggling. By putting in enough time and effort, we of average intelligence can and do perform better than those who were born gifted and sail through everything.

4. Prioritise
This is most applicable at GCSE or other times when you have a large number of exams in different subjects. By year 11, you'll probably already know what subjects you like and will be looking to pursue in future, and which ones you can't wait to get rid of. It's not humanly possible to revise all your subjects as well as you would like, so you need to pick out the ones which are most important to you, and the ones which you're not that bothered about. At GCSE, I prioritised things like English and History, as well as Maths out of the fact that it's a necessity in life. I let science subjects slide, only putting in real revision effort into Biology, which was the only science I could do. Chemistry received only a small amount of attention whilst Physics I pretty much gave up on. I knew I would die a happy man if I never had to step foot into the science block again, so I wasn't too fussed about my science results provided I didn't do so terribly that it was a hindrance. If you're finding that you're not able to dedicate enough time to revising topics in subjects that matter to you, take time away from those you don't care about. You will perform less well in the subjects you divert time away from (eg, I was the only student in my Physics class to get below a B), but you'll potentially improve your results in the subjects that you want to pursue.

5. Resits can save you
I hang my head in shame at this, but I got a C in an English exam in January 2011. I had it remarked and it went down by one mark, bringing the grade to a D. I was mightily pissed off at myself and couldn't understand how I had under-performed by such a wide margin. I got a copy of the paper back, and went through it with my teachers. I re-sat it in the summer exams and came out of it with an A* overall. Resits don't always help (I re-sat an AS History exam and came back with almost the exact same mark), but they can make a big difference to your overall grade in the subject. It's not the end of the world if you mess up an exam; get a copy of your paper, find out where you went wrong, and do it again. It's not fun, but it could make big difference.

6. Your coursework matters
If your subject has coursework or other methods of assessment aside from exams, put real effort into them. If you walk into an exam with good coursework, you've already got a guaranteed better grade and will be less impacted if you have a bad day in the exam and it can really help you be less stressed about failure if you've already got good marks under your belt. If you're struggling with the combined workload of coursework and homework or other commitments, speak to your teachers to explain your situation and ask for extended due dates for homework. Chances are, they'll be accommodating. If they're not, just prioritise your coursework anyway; it's more important than a homework in another subject. But don't kid yourself - you need to catch up with the other work you've been allowing to fall by the wayside.

7. Exams are a silly method of assessment
There's no other way about it. There are few things more absurd than condensing an academic year's worth of work into a 90 minute exam, expecting students to revise everything they've learned to then only have to cover a small part of it, and expecting them to perform to the best of their ability in a stressful environment. Exams are difficult and quite absurd; if you mess one up, you're not a failure. But learn from your mistakes and rectify them. It's an unfortunate fact of life that you've got to fit within the examination system to succeed. Benjamin Franklin said: "Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out." - he's bang on.

8. Go forth and party
During your revision be sociable, get drunk sometimes. Whilst studying for for AS Levels I didn't really do anything other than revision. During A2 revision I took time away to go to parties, pubs, etc. It makes the whole thing a lot more bearable when you're going out and socialising with friends, breaking up the monotony of ream after ream of paper. I did better in my A2 than my AS - I'm not saying that's because I socialised, but socialising and occasionally dancing like some kind of mentalist didn't prevent me doing well.

9. University is not for everyone
Thanks in part to the former Labour government's insistence on a target of 50% of students going on to uni, it's now presented to many students as being the only route to success and a decent life. It's nonsense. The annals of history are lined with the statues of people who have succeeded in spite of - or indeed because of - not going to university. If you don't want to go, don't. If you're not sure if you want to go, take a year or two out and do something else whilst you make up your mind. Remember that the door always remains open to you in the future.

10. Make your own decisions
Similarly, both at A-Level, university, or any other method of study you choose, pick the subjects you want to do. I've been very lucky to have parents who trust me to make decisions for myself, but I know some parents can be quite pushy and seek to coax their kids towards a certain career. In the nicest possible way, ignore your parents if they're doing this. Despite thinking they have your best interests at heart, they don't if they're pushing you in a direction you don't want to go in. There's no sense in pursuing subjects and a longer-term academic career in something you're not interested in or passionate about just because you've been told it's the right thing to do, or because your parents want you to be a lawyer or a doctor or a scientist. Do what you enjoy and might like to pursue further in the future.

11. "The race is long, and in the end it's only with yourself"
The above quote is the best advice anyone can ever give you.
Ignore what others think of you. Don't let them tell you your subject choices are soft or wrong. Don't let them get you down with insults or criticism. Don't be too irritated if others are succeeding more than you. Do what you want to do, and don't be afraid to follow the path less well-travelled if that's where your heart takes you. You may make a mistake and make the wrong decision, but there are often other options beyond it, or the chance to go back and change decisions. Every decision opens another door, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time.

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